How Captain Jack Sparrow Explains the Problem with ‘America’s Backyard’
The Caribbean is awash in poverty, violence, and corruption.
In my three years as commander of U.S. Southern Command in Miami, Florida, (the true capital of the Caribbean and Latin America, as some will tell you), I came to know the Caribbean very well, visiting every major island over a three-year period. It is a lovely and vibrant part of the world, dominated by a sea that connects the 28 island nations and territories, as well as the 12 other nations that border its turquoise waters.
Yet despite its beauty, it is, unfortunately, a part of the world that does not live up to its potential, with poverty, poor growth, corruption, and violence It is a part of the world that seems perpetually stuck in the past in so many ways. As a result, when I contemplate the Caribbean, I am often reminded of one simple part of the “Pirate’s Code” personified by Cpt. Jack Sparrow in the silly Pirates of the Caribbean films: “Fall behind, left behind.” In the Caribbean, it feels like everyone somehow fell hopelessly behind the rest of the world. And the region has yet to catch up.
On Jan. 27-28, the military leaders of the Community of Caribbean (CARICOM) nations gathered in Kingston, Jamaica, for the 14th annual Caribbean Nations Security Conference. The United States was represented by the new commander of U.S. Southern Command, Adm. Kurt Tidd, a former commander of the Navy’s Fourth Fleet, which patrols the region. There was much to discuss. Sadly, little of it was positive.
Let’s face it: the Caribbean is a sea of nations that by and large don’t function terribly well. Central America is the most violent region in the world — due to a series of insurgencies in the 1980s, gang violence, and drug trafficking. Colombia has been fighting a virulent insurgency for 60 years, though it may finally be turning the tide. Venezuela is oil rich and politically poor, unable to even stock essential goods on store shelves. The “three Guyana’s” (British, now known as simply Guyana; Dutch, now Suriname; and French, still a very poor Department of France) are plagued by poverty. Almost all of the islands are poor and suffer from weak, corrupt governance. Puerto Rico faces economic default. And Cuba, the “Pearl of the Antilles,” is the last dictatorship in the hemisphere.
Why is this? It is the result of a witches’ brew of history and geography, including a legacy of racism, slavery, piracy, anarchy, and small wars. Additionally, the region has a history of general physical exploitation with little regard to sustainability; colonizing powers used slave labor, depleted the soil, and failed to create lasting educational and developmental structures. What agricultural development has occurred since then most often has been conducted to the point of exhaustion, using mono-crop agricultural approaches. Finally, natural disasters are endemic. Each time a nation like Haiti begins to make progress, it seems there a devastating hurricane or earthquake lurks just around the corner. There is no other maritime region that has been dealt such a bad hand of cards, both by history and by nature.
Additionally, the region is a significant transit zone for narcotics flowing largely from the Andean Ridge in South America and up into the United States, the largest drug market in the world. Many serious analysts and political leaders are beginning to advocate legalization to stem this illicit flow. My concern is not about the moral effects of drug use, a question I will table for now; it is quite simply about the money. The cash that comes out of this multi-billion dollar industry is unregulated, and much of it fuels corruption and violence, undermines fragile democracies, and stifles growth in other sectors. The idea of a “war on drugs” is limiting and simplistic, and has clearly failed — we need a strategy to fight corruption and violence, which are the root problems. And a big part of the challenge, of course, is our drug market in the United States, which sends a voracious demand signal through criminal and unregulated channels.
It is tempting to focus on the proximity of the United States itself as the heart of the problem, as some analysts claim. The argument goes that the 1800s-era Monroe Doctrine made the region into a sort of stifled “American lake” that was never allowed to reach its potential. Mexicans have a saying: “Pity poor Mexico, so close to the United States, so far from God.” There is a bit of that feeling in the islands, as well, where the United States is blamed for everything from the lackluster economy to the bad weather. As H. L. Mencken put it, all of that strikes me as clear, simple, and wrong.
The great irony, of course, is that the region ought to work very well. Despite a bloody history early on in the colonial period, there hasn’t been a major war in the region between nations for centuries. The Caribbean is nestled in the heart of the Americas, the richest zone of commerce and natural resources in the world. To the north and increasingly to the south are industrialized societies with which the nations of the Caribbean have strong and important demographic connections — think of the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and El Salvador, all with enormous immigrant populations in the United States on a per capita basis.
While the Caribbean Sea itself can be fickle and bring terrible storms during hurricane season, it is a natural “tropical silk road” that links all the economies and provides a shimmering tourist industry. Despite the overhang of colonialism, many of the nations in the Caribbean maintain strong links back to advanced nations and economies in Europe, including Britain, France, and the Netherlands. There is a good deal of material to work with in terms of advancing the societies of the region.
What can the United States do? And perhaps more importantly, what are we willing to do?
First, we should begin by recognizing our regional responsibilities. Despite our frustration with decades of failure to achieve progress, we have both a moral and a pragmatic set of reasons to expend resources here in the Americas, and, I would argue, especially in the Caribbean Sea and basin. Given our historical engagement — including multiple military invasions over the past couple of centuries — as well as our penchant for claiming responsibility (see, again: the Monroe Doctrine), the moral argument seems fairly clear. Additionally, the impact of World Bank and International Monetary Fund-imposed economic reforms have been particularly harsh on these underdeveloped economies.
The pragmatic case is equally clear. By building up capable local partners through economic, political, cultural, and security cooperation, we strengthen our shared region. The tired and offensive cliché of “America’s backyard” must go, to be replaced by an approach in the spirit of a “Partnership for the Americas.” The Caribbean — the neediest region of the Americas, encompassing the Central American nations — is a practical place to start. If even a tiny fraction of what has been spent on development in Afghanistan had been used in the Caribbean, we might have seen extraordinary results. It is never too late to start.
Second, we need to encourage the nations of the Caribbean to work together. The reality is that they are individually too small to achieve real political weight. There are some nascent multilateral organizations in the Caribbean, but they have never proven able to move the geopolitical needle. Washington should provide resources, advice, and training to the Caribbean organizations that focus on collective action, and revitalize the moribund Caribbean Basin Initiative, which has always been a kind of geopolitical afterthought to NAFTA and CAFTA.
Third, our security cooperation has been limited in its approach and effectiveness. Almost entirely focused on the failed war on drugs, we have failed to provide the kind of wide-spectrum engagement that might improve regional security. Local forces need training and resources to improve the rule of law, basic investigative work, advanced anti-corruption techniques, surveillance, intelligence, and human rights. U.S. Southern Command is the right conduit for this.
A fourth thought would be to build in a constructive and methodical way to draw on the huge diasporas from the region living in the United States today. The Cuban-American community, for example, has resources and deep business experience. Each of the other national groups brings different regional strengths within the United States to bear. Connecting the Caribbean diaspora to move beyond simple remittances to creating businesses and encouraging investments in their home nations is crucial.
Fifth, we should do this in cooperation with our continental partners — Mexico and Canada. As the other two North American economic powers, we all have shared interests in a successful Caribbean.
Sixth, U.S. federal agencies should work to develop a collective Caribbean strategy. We have one for the Arctic — why not one for our southern neighbors?
Seventh, we should think more aggressively about so-called “Track Two” diplomacy, coupling the private sectors together. This can be done through educational reforms, programs in the arts, sports diplomacy, and medical exchanges. Given that the languages of the region are overwhelmingly English and Spanish (our two core national languages), we have a huge comparative advantage in doing this in and around the Caribbean Sea. When I led U.S. Southern Command, we tried a number of innovative things to connect with the region. One was a series of baseball clinics conducted by U.S. troops (carefully screened former college ballplayers) and financed partly through public sector donations from Major League Baseball teams. There are many creative approaches in this venue that would help with the people-to-people connections.
Overall, this is a region where a little bit of attention and resources goes a very long way. There are humanitarian and pragmatic reasons to overturn the Pirates Code of “fall behind, left behind.” Let’s work harder to help our Caribbean neighbors sail ahead.
Photo Credit: OLIVIER LABAN MATTEI / Staff